Video Games: a storytelling craft that still needs to be mastered

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Games these days employ writers to oversee their entire world, history and characters. In effect, the writers could have a huge amount of control over the playground, the experience in which players engage. That’s a huge responsibility!

Of course, not every game has a team of writers assigned to it. Many AAA games achieve amazing sales with hardly any real writing. Let’s be honest, the longest lasting narrative of a video game is about a stereotypical Italian plumber saving his girlfriend from a dragon… thing.

But why is this? Why do many games that have terrible narrative or even atmosphere, gain critical and commercial acclaim? What makes other games like Bioshock 1 such a detailed, moving experience while Infinite left something missing in the profound sense? I believe we can find the answer by drawing parallels to another similar art form and their creators – film and their directors.

Bioshock

Films – looks aren’t everything!

If you look at something like Transformers – it’s entertaining to a lot of people. The visuals are stunning, the scenes are action packed and there’re enough explosions to make Michael Bay wet himself. However, what does it actually say? The truth is, nothing. The film barely explores the human condition or reflects upon how we live beyond our fascination of Megan Fox’s cleavage.

While Transformers is an easy target, you can observe the same trend in respected film makers. For example, Steven Spielberg is a master of the craft of filmmaking, but not necessarily of the art of it– some of his films often lack depth because of this fact. Of course this can be applied to more than just films.

Musical taste or musical mush?

Many people, myself included, tend to dislike new age music. Now it could be due to the auto-tuned voices, lack of perceived talent or even personal taste in its truest form. However, I’d like to highlight one particular trait that seems to be common with new, mainstream music when compared to older eras.

Newer songs seem to have nothing really to say! I’m not saying all songs from our era are like this, but the vast majority of the songs on the radio have nothing of meaning to say – they’re all about the beat, the music itself. You can assign any meaning you like to the song – but that’s more a reflection of yourself than the song, and quite frankly, mental masturbation. Something like Steve Vai’s Whispering a Prayer actually exposes the artist’s passion for the craft and you can sense the narrative of the song and its purpose. Comparing that to some DJ playing an algorithm that’s been designed to be musical crack to the ear is an insult to musicians everywhere.

So what does this have to do with games?

mario

My point is that games suffer from the same fate in this day and age. With so many advancements today, games have the ability to really push art – reflections and observations of humanity – to new standards, new ways of getting the message across and experiencing something unique.

We’ve mastered the craft of game making, but are nowhere near mastering the art.

Why? Because uninspired, poorly crafted games sell. Because people like it – they like comfortable, predictable toys. If you look at something like Pokémon or Mario Bros, they’ve created an entire business model around it.

All 46 iterations of Pokémon have essentially the same story rehashed over and over. The original story itself was one of growth, rite of passage and even the notion that one unlikely, unassuming person can make a difference through hard work. But this has now been done 46 times… 46 times! You’d think that after producing a cash-cow like Pokemon, GameFreak would be able to hire a writer or two to make the game a little different besides giving you the option to change your gender and creating a few more fire-earth-water pigdragons.

Mario has a basic premise of platforming, beating up walking mushrooms, jumping on tortoises and defeating dino-dragonsauruses. If anything, the innovation comes packaged into the gameplay with some minor graphical advancements – and these innovations are simply packaged as just additional control inputs rather than meaningful mental decisions or considerations. In essence, it seems to me that Mario games are all about the how rather than the why. The player is never expected to experience something new, consider something different or be challenged in a way that deviates from the original formula.

uncharted

I admit I may be slightly (read: extremely) biased when it comes to platformers in general, but something a little more sophisticated like the Uncharted series which provides more complex characters and situations is a direction I would like to see gaming heading towards. The writing, characterization and evolution of the character of Nathan Drake alone is enough to see the subtle potential of writing in games. The gameplay itself can even accomplish this task – Journey showed us that you don’t need dialogue or a straightforward plot to provide an interesting narrative, evocative experiences and a game that can proudly stand up to other mediums such as film or music.

The problem with the mechanics are all in place, they’re seen as fun to many people around the world and they up the prettiness with every new game that consumers gobble up. Just like Transformers and Lil Wayne they have no real message, no reflection upon humanity or any real observation, and absolutely no thought or writing that seriously resonates with people on a deeper level, and thus do very little for the medium to be taken seriously as an art.

Is this really such a bad thing?

The truth is, I don’t know.

While I personally dislike that these companies and series are wasting their potential, without them gaming would never be where it is today. Popular culture is a beast that must be satisfied before anything is taken seriously – and these games may be a price we’ve had to play for gaming to take its place next to film and literature.

Certain games that previously pushed the boundaries of lore and atmosphere have now settled for generic ‘Hollywood stories’ to appease the market rather than taking risks and seeing where it ends up – I’m looking at you, Starcraft and Diablo. It may be a shame that the changing popularity of games has affected the future of these games and where they could have gone, the mindless clones of the Call of Duty franchise have made games a viable industry to invest in, which has opened the door for many smaller developers to gain funding, and broaden the horizons of what games are capable of.

I guess time will tell – consumers may start requiring more from a game than just cute mechanics and pretty visuals to be satisfied, which will in turn pave the road for innovation. It happened with the horror film genre when it went down the path of gore – quick stimulation and shock for fast results, until people got used to it and it faded into obscurity. Perhaps when people start getting bored of the same old trope over and over, and we start being more critical of games, gaming will evolve to take its place next to literature and film. Until then, it seems we’ll keep putting coins into the time bomb.

Last Updated: September 23, 2015

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